"When in war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?" (Deuteronomy 20:19)
This verse is one of the guidelines given in the Torah for conducting war. It is also the basis for the mitzvah (commandment) known as bal tashchit which commands us not to be wasteful or destructive.
According to the biblical commentator Rashi, trees do not have the ability to protect themselves when they are in the path of war. We are to have compassion for whatever God has created (Leibowitz Studies in Devarim) and therefore we are commanded not to destroy God's creations, in this case fruit trees.
Ibn Ezra, another commentator, interpreted this text to mean that we are not to destroy fruit trees because they provide sustenance for humankind. Trees which produce food are not to be destroyed because we would be taking away a food source on which people depend to survive.
Rabbinic teaching expanded this basic rule of not destroying fruit trees to include rules against other willful acts of destruction. The extensions of this law included a prohibition on the destruction of ships, clothing, buildings, water sources and food. There were also prohibitions against wasting fuel by allowing a lamp to burn too quickly and a prohibition against breaking furniture in anger.
The Psalmist wrote, "The earth is Adonai's and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants" (Psalms 24:1). We are not the owners of the earth or of the things we find on the earth- we are here as caretakers of God's property.
In addition to the prohibition against being destructive and wasteful, bal tashchit commands us to be protective and proactive in our care of nature and in our care of our bodies and minds.
More Table Talk
- Reread the words of the Psalmist in the EXPLANATION section. What special challenge does this line present to you? What does it mean (in practical terms) to be caretakers of God's property?
- As a practitioner of bal tashchit what responsibilities have you been given? What are you supposed to take care of? What might happen if you did not take care of these things? Consider these questions in the various areas of your life: your mind/body, your home, your community, your country and the world.
- As a family or study group ask each participant to respond to the following statements: "I participate in the mitzvah of bal tashchit when I_______." "I violate the mitzvah of bal tashchit when I _______."
- As a follow-up to #3, continue with the following discussion: In what ways has humanity been wasteful or destructive whether intentionally or unintentionally? Discuss strategies and offer suggestions for changing these behaviors.
- If you own or possess something is it your right to do with it as you please? Is the Jewish value of bal tashchit in conflict with the concept of private ownership?
Why not try... doing a family bal tashchit project? Here are a few suggestions:
- Create a list of bal tashchit behaviors (e.g. turning off lights, music and TV when you leave a room, cleaning up your room, visiting the dentist, etc.) Post the list in a prominent spot at home as a visual reminder.
- Participate in a litter clean-up.
- Collect recyclable items and bring to a collection point.